The transportation system failed Jasmine Dean

A taxi sign
A taxi sign (Photo credit: Skitter)

On 27 February of last year, 21-year-old Jasmine Dean finished her last class of the day at theUniversity of the West Indies, ready to head home. She walked to the roundabout at the university’s back gate, where vehicles typically load and unload. Being legally blind, she opted to wait for one of the city busses, where she would have the comfort of a familiar driver and the security of large numbers. She waited at this bus stop for over an hour. As evening turned to night, she eventually waved down one of the red-plated taxis that are allowed to drive the bus route. She never arrived home that evening.

Jasmine’s story is not unique. Another student narrowly escaped a taxi with her life, just one week later. Yet, incidents like these are rarely seen as symptoms of a languishing public transportation system. With only 66 motor vehicles per 1,000 people, the average Jamaican is highly dependent on some form of shared transportation. However, the Jamaican Urban Transit Company (JUTC), in its current form, is failing Jamaica.

While the companys routes and schedules have gone digital, wait times like Jasmines make these timetables largely meaningless. Unlike in other major cities, riders have no way of knowing whether the bus they are waiting for has departed, or if another is on its way. Thus, its no surprise that most commuters prefer to take their chances with the next passing taxi.

To be fair, the failings of the JUTC are not entirely of its own creation. Public transportation systems rely heavily on scale to survive. Globally, only seven public transit systems are able to meet all of their operating costs from the fares generated from riders. The necessity for bus routes to run, regardless of the number of riders, means that fixed costs are high. However, any prospect of fiscal balance at the JUTC is dashed by the large share of its potential income that is cannibalized by route taxis.

The JUTCs weak revenue base inevitably translates into lower levels of reinvestment and poorservice. Most JUTC buses are currently between 10 and 12 years old – meaning most are nearly three-quarters of the way through their expected useful life. The implications of such a high average-age-of-fleet (AOF) are twofold. First, the frequency and cost of maintenance for these vehicles is high. At present, nearly 100 buses are out of service, awaiting parts from overseas. Second, it suggests that new buses havent been introduced into the fleet on a consistent life-cycle basis. In two to three years, the company will need to replace the majority of the fleet at once, a massive liquidity burden that will likely also lead to interruptions in service.

Route taxis have been a feature of Kingstons transit picture for more than half a century. Inability to curtail these taxi operators in the mid-century has led to a degree of government accommodation and efforts at regulation. In theory, taxi drivers must be licensed, and abide by certain rules, such as not soliciting passengers at bus stops. In practice, regulation has not proved feasible and aggressive competition for passengers is common place. The reality is that peaceful coexistence has not worked. If the ultimate goal is a sustainable and reliable public transportation system, the government must choose.

Phasing out route taxis will face intense opposition from taxi drivers and commuters alike; but our long-term development depends on it. Though it may subject commuters to longer waits or crowding, as the JUTC builds sufficient capacity in the short run, they’ll eventually find the amount of congestion in the citys brutal rush hours shortened. The economic potential is also remarkable. As we consider the failure of ambitious growth goals like “5 in 4”, we must look less at the number of new hotels being built, and more at using our existing resources more efficiently. If the KMAs 600,000 residents can be brought to work, school, or play with just 2,000 workers, rather than 10,000, this leaves an enormous number of productive hours that can be redeployed in more valuable ways. This said, the economic transition will need to be carefully managed, acknowledging that young unemployed men are one of the highest risk demographics in our society.

Acknowledging the complex and difficult history, the following are a number of actionable steps that can be taken to move us in the right direction: outfit all buses with live GPS trackers feeding to the Google Transit database; make mobile data traffic to the Google Transit service surcharge free, on both telecom carriers; place a moratorium on new route taxi licenses – allow all currently licensed vehicles to exhaust their useful life; and create an express judicial docket for road code violations.

Modernizing public transportation in this country will require the courage to be criticized. This government is early enough in the electoral cycle to begin this process without fear that voters will hold them accountable during the worst days of the transition. But this window will not be open for long. To miss it, is to accept Jasmines fate as the status quo for several years to come.

Shua McLean (@shuakym) is a Master of Public Affairs student at Princeton University, concentrating in International Development. He writes regularly on issues of public finance, budgeting, and public-sector reform. He is an intern at the Jamaica Monitor. 


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